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Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verb/ess sentences: is there a null VP? 



Nasser Al-Horais 

University of Newcastle 
School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, Percy Building NE3 7RU 

United Kingdom 

Fax: +44 (0)191 222 8708 

E-mail: uk 


Este trabajo pretende describir y analizar el fenomeno de la ausencia de verbo copulativo en tiempo presente en 
las oraciones sin verbo en arabe. Por regla general, se asume que, en arabe, las oraciones sin verbo contienen 
un verbo copulativo nulo o elidido. Este estudio rebate dicho supuesto y propone que, en consonancia con las 
bases de la sintaxis minimista (expresadas inicialmente en Chomsky 1993, 1995), las oraciones sin verbo revelan 
ausencia de V y, por lo tanto, de VP. La razon es que la estructura objeto de estudio presenta dos posibilidades 
para expresar el tiempo presente: una mediante la ausencia de verbo, y otra que conlleva la presencia de verbo 
copulativo con flexion de tiempo. 

Palabras clave: oracion sin verbo, verbo copulativo nulo, predicacion, caso. 


The aim of this paper is to describe and analyze the absence of present tense verbal copula in Arabic verbless 
sentences. The Standard assumption is that Arabic verbless sentences contain a null or deleted copula. The present 
study argues contra this assumption. It proposes, building on the framework of minimalist syntax (first proposed 
by Chomsky 1993, 1995), that there is no V and hence no VP in verbless sentences since the relevant construction 
has two alternatives to express the present tense interpretation: one is achieved without a verb and the other with 
a verb (copula) inflected for tense. 

Keywords: Verbless sentence, null copula, predication, Case. 


Le but de cet expose est de decrire et d'examiner l'absense des verbes de connexion dans les phrases arabiques 
sans verbes. La supposition habituelle est que les phrase arabiques contiennent un verbe de connexion insignifiant 
ou supprime. Les etudes recentes sont contre cette supposition. lis suggerent, en se basant sur le cadre de la 
syntaxe minimaliste(d'abbord avance par Chomsky 1993,1995) qu'il n'y a pas de V et done de VP dans les 
phrases sans verbes, car la construction approprie a deux facon alternatives d'exprimer 1' interpretation du temps 
au present. L'un est accompli sans le verbe et 1' autre avec un verbe inflechi pour le temps. 

Mots cles: Phrase sans verbes, verbes de connexion insignifiant,predication, cas. 

1 This paper is based on my MA thesis, written under the supervision of Prof. Professor Anders Holmberg and 
submitted to the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at the University of Newcastle in August 

Pragmalmgiiistica, 14, (2006), 101-116 


Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verbless sentences: is there a null VP? 


1. Introduction. 2. The structure of verbless sentences. 2.1. Predication in verbless sentences. 2.2. Case and 
Agreement in Verbless Sentences. 3. The deep structure of verbless sentences. 3.1. Abstract functional category 
in verbless sentences. 4. Copula and verbless sentences. 5. Discussion. 6. Conclusion. 

1. Introduction 

Verbless sentences are considered to be one of the significant characteristics of the 
Arabic language syntax. The verbless sentence can be defined as a sentence with the 
absence of an overt verbal copula in the present tense (1) (Benmamoun 2000). In Arabic 
syntax, this kind of sentence is considered to be a part of what is called by early Arab 
grammarians al-Jomlah al-Esmeiah 'the Nominal Sentence' (Sibawayh/796- AD, 1977). 

(1) ahmad-u mu'aallim-un 
Ahmad-Nom teacher -Nom 
"Ahmad is a teacher." 

Given the example (1), we can see the absence of an overt verbal copula in the present 
tense. However, the case in the past and future tense seems different (Bakir 1980; Fassi Fehri 
1993 and Benmamoun 2000). The presence of an overt verbal copula is obligatory (2). 

(2) a. ahmad-u kana huna ?amsi 
Ahmad-Nom be.past here yesterday 
"Ahmad was here yesterday." 

b.* ahmad-u huna 'amsi 

Ahmad-Nom here yesterday 

(3) a. sa-yakounu 1-hall-u jaahiz-an ghadan 
FUT-be the-solution-Nom ready-Ace tomorrow 
"The solution will be ready tomorrow." 

b. * al-hall-u jaahiz-un ghadan 

the-solution-Nom ready-Nom tomorrow 

However, Arabic present tense copular constructions display an interesting set of 
works produced by a number of Arab and western grammarians. One of the earliest and 
most complete studies of Arabic grammar was done by Sibawayh 2 in his outstanding work 
known as al-Kitab 'the book'. This work still dominates Arabic linguistic thinking today. 
The early Arab grammarians, who came after Sibawayh such as Ibn Jinni (1010- AD, 

2 He was born in southern Persia in a small town called al-Bayda. There is no agreement about the year of his 
birth, nor his death, although in all probability he died in c. 180 AH (796 AD) at the age of about forty-five (Al- 
Nassir 1993: 4). 

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Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verb/ess sentences: is there a null VP? 

1993), Abo Hian (1377- AD, 2001) and Ibn Hesham (1590- AD, 1994), repeated what 
Sibawayh said about the structure of verbless sentences and added some observations. 

At present, several grammarians have attempted to study Arabic verbless sentences 
from various perspectives, e.g., classical Arabic (CA), Modern standard Arabic (MSA), and 
dialectal variants around the Arab world (Bakir, 1980; Fassi Fehri, 1993 and Benmamoun, 
2000). Others compared it with the structure of verbless sentences in various languages that 
have this kind of sentence, such as Hebrew (Eid 1991; Falk 2004). Briefly, the difference, 
which will be explained in more detail later, between the old and new studies of Arabic 
verbless sentences, is that early Arab grammarians claimed that in these sentences, there 
is no V and hence no VP (Sibawayh 1977). It has a particular structure as it only contains 
a subject and predicate, while most modern Arab grammarians such as Bakir (1980), Fassi 
Fehri (1993) and Bahloul (1993) argue that there is a copula in verbless sentences but it 
is not overt. This argument mainly relies on some analyses which have suggested, after 
considering this kind of construction in some languages e.g., Hebrew (Falk 2004) Russian 
(Babby 1981) and in some dialects of African- American English (Labov 1995) that present 
tense copulative sentences contain a null verbal copula .To the best of my knowledge, 
none of these studies, old or new, have discussed in more depth the Arabic sentence with 
the verb / ya-kuun / 'is' which is the present form of the copula /kan/ 'was' as in (4). It is 
very important to underline the fact that Arabic is the only language that has the present 
tense copular form among languages that have the verbless sentences constructions (see 
Eid 1991: 34). 

(4) ya-kuunu al-jaww-u haarr-an fii SSayf-i 

PRES-be the-weather-Nom hot-Ace in the-summer-Gen 

"The weather is hot in the summer." (Benmamoun 2000: 47). 

In looking closely at the above example, one may argue that Arabic has two alternatives 
regarding verbless sentences in the present tense: one that deletes the copula or does not 
have it and one that pronounces it. 

Within the framework of Minimalist Program (Chomsky 1995), this paper aims to 
discuss this suggestion and the claim that there is a null V or VP in Arabic verbless 
sentences with the present tense. However, before coming to the actual analysis of that, I 
shall give, in the next section, a brief accurate picture of the structure of the Arabic verbless 
sentence from different syntactic aspects. 

2. The structure of verbless sentences 

From the preceding data, it is clear that verbless sentences do not necessarily need 
any element other than a subject and a simple predicate for their construction. As for the 
subject, it must be definite. Thus, (5) is an ill-formed sentence: 

(5) *walad-un fii 1-ghurfat-i 

boy-Nom in the-room-Gen 
"A boy is in the room." 

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Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verbless sentences: is there a null VP? 

In order to make the (5) a well-formed sentence, the NP "walad-un" must be definite by 
al "the" as in (6) or by a definite possessor as in (7): 

(6) al-walad-u fii 1-ghorfat-i 
the-boy-Nom in the-room-Gen 
"The boy is in the room." 

(7) walad-u khalid-in fii 1-ghorfat-i 
boy-Nom khalid-Gen in the-room-Gen 
"Khalid's boy is in the room." 

If the initial position is occupied by an indefinite NP, the NP must be specified by an 
adjective (8), another nominal (9) an attribute (10) and by being the first member of a 
construct state NP (11). 

(8) walad-un tawil-un fii lhdikat-i 
boy-Nom tall-Nom in the-park 
"A tall boy is in the park." 

(9) rajaul-un tabib-un ghaDib-un 
man-Nom doctor-Nom angry-Nom 
"A man ,who is a doctor, is angry." 

(10) rajaul-un min 1-yamen-i fii l-9iraq-i 
man-Nom from the-yamen-Gen in the-iraq-Gen 
"A man from Iraq is in Yamen." 

(11) ibn-u tabib-in fii 1-mostasfa 
son-Nom doctor-Gen in the-hospital-Gen 
"A son of a doctor is in the hospital." 

2.1. Predication in verbless sentences 

Predication in verbless sentences is achieved without an inflected verb; a correct 
reading of the sentence depends on identifying the constituent that functions as predicate. 
However, the nonverbal predicate is classified into three categories: (i) noun as in (12a), 
(ii) adjective as in (12b) and (iii) preposition as in (13c) (Sibawayh 1977). 

(12) a. ahmad-u Talib-un 

Ahmad-Nom student-Nom 
'Ahmad is student" 

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Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verbless sentences: is there a null VP? 

b. al-bayt-u kabiir-un 
the- house-Nom big-Nom 
"The house is big." 

c. al-walad-u fii 1-madiinat-i 
the-boy-Nom in the-city-Gen 
"The boy is in the city" 

Note that the predicate in (12: a & b) is indefinite. This should be the case when it 
is a noun or an adjective. In some structures, the predicate can be definite. If so, the 3rd 
person pronoun huwwa must occur between the two constituents. (13) & (14) are good 

(13) a. mohammed-un huwwa 1-mudarris-u 

Mohammed-Nom he the-teacher-Nom 

"Mohammed (is) the teacher." 
b. * mohammed-un 1-mudarris-u 
Mohammed-Nom the-teacher-Nom 

(14) a. khalid-un huwwa atthaki-u 

khalid-Nom he the-clever-Nom 

"Khalid (is) the clever guy." 
b. * khalid-un atthaki-u 

khalid-Nom the-clever-Nom 

Eid (1983: 43) suggests a functional explanation for the function of this pronoun by 
proposing that it functions as anti-ambiguity devices to force a sentential, vs. a phrasal, 
interpretation of a structure. Accordingly, the sentences in (12) and (13) would be 
interpreted as phrases rather than sentences if the pronoun were not there. Hence, it would 
be appropriate to call this pronoun a predicate pronoun since it reflects an identity relation 
between the subject and the predicate (Eid 1993: 45). In this perspective, the reason why 
the predicate pronoun cannot be used when the predicate is indefinite, as shown in (14), is 
that it is not needed to disambiguate the sentence. 

(15) *Ali-un huwwa Dari:f-un 
Ali-Nom he nice-Nom 
"Ali is nice." 

2.2. Case and Agreement in Verbless Sentences 

It is clear from the preceding examples that case in the subject and predicate of 
verbless sentences is morphologically realized. The subject is often assigned nominative 
case as in (1), repeated here as (16): 

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Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verb/ess sentences: is there a null VP? 

(16) ahmad-u mu'aallim-un 
Ahmad-Nom teacher -Nom 
"Ahmad is a teacher. 

However, instead of nominative case, the subject is assigned accusative case when it 
is preceded by external governors such as the complementizer inna as in (17). Accusative 
case must be assigned to both subject and predicate when the verbless sentences are 
functioning as embedded clauses as in (18). 

(17) inna ahmad-a mu'aallim-un 
that Ahmad- Ace teacher -Nom 
"Indeed, Ahmad is a teacher." 

(18) hasib-tu r-rajul-a mariid-an 
thought-I the-man-Acc sick-Ace 
"I thought the man sick." 

The predicate, on the other hand, is often assigned nominative Case as in (16) above, 
except when its sentence is an embedded as in (18) above. However, when the predicate is 
a prepositional phrase as in (19) and (20), it is always assigned genitive case. The governor, 
of course, is the preposition. 

(19) huwa-3MS fii d-daar-i 
he-Nom in the-house-Gen 
"He is in the house." 

(20) hasib-tu r-rajul-a fii d-daar-i 
thought-I the-man-Acc in the-house-Gen 
"I thought the man in the house." 

Regarding Agreement, consider the following sentences: 

(21) mohammd-un mu'aallim-un w 1-bint-ani Tallbat-ani 
[Mohammd-Nom ] [teacher-Nom] and [the-two girls-Nom] [students-Nom] 
[3-MS] [3-MS] [3-D 3 F] [3- DF] 
[Nom-Case] [Nom-Case] [Nom-Case] [Nom-Case] 
"Mohammd is a teacher and the two girls are students." 

1 "D" here is an abbreviation of Dual. The Dual is formed by adding the termination 'u 'aani' in the nominative 
Case and lSu 'aini' in the other cases (Haywood and Nahmad, 1995). 

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Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verbless sentences: is there a null VP? 

(22) ?r-rijal-u sa'aiduuna w an-nsa?-u mota'ajebat-un 

the-men-Nom happy-Nom and the-women-Nom surprised- Nom 

[3-PM] [3-PM] [3-PF] [3-PF] 

[Nom-Case] [Nom-Case] [Nom-Case] [Nom-Case] 

"The men are happy and the women are surprised. 

The overall conclusion to be drawn from (21) and (22) is that agreement between the 
subject and the predicate in verbless sentences is full agreement. The predicate carries 
all features that the subject has: number, person, gender and case. This full agreement 
is the result of a direct feature-valuing relation between the predicate AP or NP and the 

The subject is assigned nominative by an abstract governor ibtida (inception), which 
we assume is a form of C. The subject also needs a theta role. This makes it a probe. This 
role can only get from the predicate AP/NP This predicate, on the other hand, has unvalued 
phi-features, including u-case, which are all valued by the subject. In this way there is a 
mutual feature-valuing relation between the subject probe and the predicate goal. (23) 
illustrates how this full agreement works: 




Inception ^ ^^^^ 

[Nom] ^^ ^^^ Pred(NP/AP) 

NP [u-Per] 

[u-Theta-role] [u-Gend] 

[case] [u-Num] 


The abstract governor in the Arabic theory of government is an element which is 
non-existent in the apparent structure (Al-Liheibi 1999:136). This element is called by this 
theory alma9nawi which is not a verb or particle but a concept that is created by 
grammarians to explain 9alamat al-e9rab "parsing signs" "whenever the apparent structure 
of the sentence does not include an expressed element that is capable to govern the other 
elements" (ibid). 

3. The deep structure of verbless sentences 

This section considers the following questions regarding D-structure of verbless 
sentences, (i) Are they a type of small clauses with no VP but with an abstract governor 
assigning normative case to the subject (Sibawayh 1977) or with a null Aux preceding the 
predicate (Jelinek 1981). (ii) Is there a null copula in this particular structure as argued by 
Bakir (1980) and Fassi Fehri (1993)? 

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Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verbless sentences: is there a null VP? 

3.1. Abstract functional category in verbless sentences 

As pointed out earlier, a common view which is adopted by Arabic traditional 
grammar is that predication in verbless sentences is achieved without an inflected verb 
(Sibawayh 1977); a correct reading of the sentence depends on identifying the constituent 
that functions as subject, which is traditionally called mubtada, and the other constituent 
that functions as predicate. Thus all predication is divided into two categories: verbal 
sentences, in which the verb is initial in the sentence, and nominal sentences in which a 
nominal element is initial (Miller, 1993). This analysis must lead to the following question: 
since predication is achieved without an inflected verbal form, how does the subject get its 
nominative case in (24), for example? 

(24) khalid-un suja'a-un 

khalid-Nom brave-Nom 
"Khalid (is) brave." 

As previously discussed, the answer is that the subject in (24) is assigned nominative 
by an abstract governor which is the ibtida 'inception', and that the predicate is assigned 
nominative by agreement with the subject (Sibawayh 1977). This is illustrated in (25): 


Pred (NP/AP) 



As can be seen in (25), the null abstract functional category is placed in C position. 
This suggests that there is a null C which assigns nominative to the subject. An alternative 
analysis is proposed by Jelinek (1981), on the basis of Egyptian Arabic data. She argues 
that there is a null AUX which is located between the subject and predicate. This category 
is specified for the present tense feature only. This analysis is shown in (26). 







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Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verbless sentences: is there a null VP? 

It is hard to adopt the assumption of a null AUX in (26) for the reason that this null 
AUX cannot c-command the NP because it is in a lower position and hence it cannot be 
able to assign nominative to the NP. By contrast, the null abstract functional category is in 
the C position which is higher as illustrated in (26). Therefore, it is capable to c-command 
the NP. However, suggesting there is a null T, seems plausible since this construction has 
a feature tense that is specified for agreement only as illustrated in tree (23) above (cf. 
Doron 1986). 

4. Copula and verbless sentences 

It is widely argued that there is a verbal copula in Arabic verbless sentences but it is 
phonologically null or deleted. In this connection, Bakir (1980) proposes that there is a verbal 
copula in these small clauses. However, the NP that precedes the copula is a topic and the 
subject is a pronominal element and that its position is directly after the copula. According 
to "two processes of deletion may take place here: subject-pronoun deletion, since the subject 
pronoun huwa is co-referential with the topic-NP; and we would also need a rule of copula- 
deletion" (Bakir 1980: 176). His suggestion can be represented as in (27): 















The analysis in (27) results from the observation that the wh-element appears to the 
right of the subject and not to the left of it as in (28): 

(28) al-jaww-u kayfa yakuunu fii sita? 

the-weather-Nom how is in the-winter-Gen? 

"The weather, how is it in winter?" 

Fassi Fehri (1993) agrees with Bakir that there is a copula but it does not undergo 
deletion. It is, according to him, inserted as null. After considering the copula state in 
different tenses, he arrives at the conclusion that the copula is phonetically realized (as in 
the case of past tense) in what might be taken as specified moods, tenses, or aspects. Then 
he postulates the following, spelling out a rule for the copula: 

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Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verb/ess sentences: is there a null VP? 

(29) Spell out the copula as kwn when Mood, Aspect, and/or Tenses are specified, 
otherwise spell it out as zero (Fassi Fehri 1993:156). 

Benmamoun (2000) considers the null or deleted copula implausible because when a 
copula is overt in Arabic, it assigns accusative Case to the predicate as in (30): 

(30) kana khalid-un mu'aallim-an 
be.past.3MS khalid-Nom teacher-Ace 
"Khalid was a teacher." 

However, in verbless sentences, the predicate is nominative as in (31): 

(31) khalid-un mu'aallim -un 
khalid-Nom teacher-Nom 
"Khalid is a teacher." 

So, if the assumption of null copula is correct, the null copula should not assign 
a different case from that of the overt copula. One piece of evidence in support of 
Benmamoun's objection comes from the principle that is adopted by Arabic theory of 
government in (32): 

(32) Governing words bear Case-assigning, when they are null or deleted (see Al- 
Liheibi 1999:181& 193). 

Consider the sentence from CA in (33): 

(33) (?'aTi-ni) ?l-kitab-a 4 
(give-me) the-book-Acc 
"Give me the book." 

In (33), the verb ?'aTi-ni 'give me' is phonologically unexpressed but syntactically 
represented by still assigning accusative case to the object; otherwise the object must be 

Shlonsky (1997) rejects the assumption of null or deleted copula of present tense 
"since the language has a binary tense system in which the present tense is expressed, in the 
unmarked case, by the imperfect from of be "yakuun", which is morphologically regular 
(i.e., phonetically realized)" (p. 102). For supporting Shlonsky's rejection, the following 
data are collected from MSA to give evidence on the occurrence of the copula in the 
present tense: 

4 Note that the ellipted element TaTi-ni is indicated by a situational indicator. In (33) the surrounding circums- 
tances can help the addressee to guess the ellipted element easily. If the word ?l-kitab-a is spoken and there is 
a book lying nearby on a table and the speaker is addressing a friend sitting beside that table, then the meaning 
will require the ellipted element ? 'aTi-n. i 

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Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verhless sentences: is there a null VP? 

Fassi Fehri (1993:155) indicates that "the copula occurs when a stative, adjective or 
locative conveys a general or habitual meaning" as in (34): 

(34) ?indamaa yakounu r-rajul-u mariiD-an fa-?inna-hu laa y-ubaalii 
when is the-man-Nom sick-Ace then -that- him not 3MS-care 
"When the man is sick, he does not care." 

In (34), the verb (yakuun) is syntactically in the form of present tense "imperfect" and 
semantically refers to a situation which often happens in the present. Also, the present form 
of the copula optionally appears in polite use as exemplified by (35): 

(35) ?-akounu sa'aeed-an bi-liQaa?-i-ka 

am I-Nom happy-Ace with-meeting-Gen-you 

"I would be happy to meet you." (Fassi Fehri 1993:205) 

Other cases which require the presence of the copula in the present tense involve 
modality with qad "may", yajib ?an "must" and yastatii'au ?an "can" (Bahloul 1994). 
These are represented in (36-38), respectively: 

(36) a. al-Qalam-u tahta aTTawelaht-i 

the-pen-Nom under the-table-Gen 
"The pen is under the table." 

b. * Qad al-qalam-u tahta aTTawelaht-i 
may the-pen-Nom under the-table-Gen 

c. Qad yakounu al-Galam-u tahta aTTawilaht-i 
may is the-pen-Nom under the-table-Gen 
"The pen may be under the table." 

(37) a. * yajibu ?an al-Qalam-u tahta aTTawilaht-i 

must the-pen-Nom under the-table-Gen 

b. yajib ?an yakuunu al-Galam-u tahta aTTawilaht-i 
must that be the-pen-Nom under the-table-GEN 
"The pen must be under the table." 

(38) a. huwa mudiir-un 

he director-Nom 
"He is a director." 
b.* yastaTii'au ?an mudiir-un 

can that director-Nom 

c. yastaTii'au ?an yakounu mudiir-an 
can that is director-Ace 
"He can be a director." 

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Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verb/ess sentences: is there a null VP? 

Another environment where the copula occurs involves the context of a specific 
interpretation of the present tense as in (39). 

(39) yakounu al-jaww-u haarr-an fii ssayf-i 

Pres -be the-weather-Nom hot-Ace in the-summer-Acc 

"The weather is hot in the summer." (Benmamoun 2000: 47). 

By contrast, the imperfective form of the copula is not allowed in verbless sentences 
as shown by (40) below. 

(40) * ?mar-u (yakuunu) tawil-an 

Omar-Norn (Pres-be.3MS) tall-Ace (Benmamoun 2000: 47). 

5. Discussion 

According to the preceding data, we are facing a problematic issue due to this fact: 
two structures of predicative sentences in the present tense are found in Arabic. One is with 
an absent copula and another with an overt copula as exemplified in the earlier preceding 
examples. This analysis leads to these questions: (i) what has forced Arabic to have the 
two structures? (ii) Is there a semantic difference between them? In this regard, Bahloul 
(1994) argues that the occurrence and non-occurrence of the copula is related to the type 
of features on the Tense. T can take any phrasal category as a complement, as illustrated 
in (41). 



np r 


[+ Present, +D] A/P/N 

Accordingly, he assumes that when the TP is tensed, T selects a VP complement 
headed by a verbal element that obligatorily moves to support the tense features in T as 
were illustrated in (45-47); but if T is empty or featureless other categories than VP would 
occur (NP, AP, or PP). However, Bahloul's argument does not seem to be plausible since 
the TP in (50) is tensed but cannot select a VP. Consider the following example from 
Benmamoun (2000: 48). 

(42) a. al-jaww-u harr-un 


the-weather-Nom hot-Nom 


"The weather is hot today." 

b. * yakuunu al-jaww-u har-an 


Pres-be the-weather-Nom hot-Ace 


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Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verhless sentences: is there a null VP? 

In (42), although the T head in the present tense is specified for a tense feature, 
it is mysterious why the copula insertion rule does not apply to it. In this connection, 
Benmamoun tries to explain why the verb is not required in verbless sentences. He adopts 
the following assumption: 

(43) Movement to tense is not driven by the requirement to provide a host for tense. 
Since tense does not need a host the distribution of the copula must be found 
elsewhere (Benmamoun 2000: 49). 

Alternatively, he suggests that this problem can be solved if we dispense with the idea 
that sentences always have a verb [+V]. He proposes that the nonverbal sentences in present 
tense contain EPP feature [+D] only. "Since it is not [+V], there is no need for a verbal 
copula. However, its [+D] feature must be checked, a role that can be adequately fulfilled 
by the subject" (ibid). According to his analysis, the sentence in (42: b) is ungrammatical 
because 'the deictic present tense' is not [+V] hence a verbal copula is not allowed. 
However, In addition to this syntactic reason, there is a semantic reason that plays a 
significant role in the obligatory absence or presence of the copula. An important point of 
detail to note is that Arabic linguistic thinking from the time of early Arab grammarians 
has divided the sentences into two categories: sentences containing a verb and others that 
do not. This division is due to the different semantic function that is conveyed by the 
two sentences. The nominal sentence bears the meaning of permanence while the verbal 
sentence bears the meaning of transient (Al-Liheibi 1999:78). Consider the meaning of 
the following sentences: 

(44) khalid-un jawad-un 
khalid-Nom generous-Nom 
"Khalid is generous." 

(45) yajud-u khalid-un 
Pres-give generously khalid-Nom 
"Khalid gives generously." 

The sentence in (44) is nominal 'nonverbal', and conveys the meaning of permanence. 
That is to say, generosity is associated with Khalid as a part of his character. However, the 
next sentence (45) is a verbal sentence which has the sense of occurrence in which Khalid 
is sometimes generous but this is not an essential part of his character (see: Al-Liheibi 
1999: 78). Thus, they dispensed with the idea that sentences always have a verb because 
this idea would miss a semantic generalization. 

The obvious question that arises now is that since Arabic has the present form derived 
from the root k.a.n of the copula verb by adding the prefix ya- to the imperfect verb form 
resulting in yakouun, what is the semantic difference between present tense sentences that 
can contain the copula and those that cannot? Before turning to consider the answer of this 
question, let us note that Arabic traditional grammar considers present tense sentences that 

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Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verbless sentences: is there a null VP? 

can contain the copula yakoun verbal sentences. This is simply because they start with a 
verb (Sibawayh 1977). 

Indeed, there is a semantic difference between the two constructions. As mentioned 
before, predicative sentences with absent copula indicates the meaning of permanence 
as illustrated by (44). However, it also, particularly in MSA, describes situations that 
are true in the present moment only but in this case, "deictic temporal adverbs" such 
as ?l?aan "now" or ?lynm "today" must occur as in (42) above (see Benmanoun 2000: 
47). By contrast, predicative sentences with an overt copula yakuun do not follow the 
Arabic verbal sentences semantically in terms of bearing the meaning of transience as 
exemplified in the preceding example of (45). This is because the copula in Arabic (and 
possibly in other languages) does not have the ability to convey the meaning of transience 
(Bergstrasser 1997). However, the copula "yakuun" performs other semantic functions 
such as "describing situations that are usually true in the past, are true in the present, 
and are expected to be true in the future" (Benmanoun 2000: 47). The sentence in (39), 
repeated here as (46) is a good example. 

(46) yakounu al-jaww-u haarr-an fii ssayf-i 

Pres -be the-weather-Nom hot-Ace in the-summer-Acc 

"The weather is hot in the summer." 

Also when the copula is expressed, the sentences will more likely be emphatic than when 
it is absent (Dukhayyil 2004). 

The overall conclusion to be drawn from our discussion is that the assumption of 
a deleted V or a null VP (copula) in Arabic verbless sentences seems implausible for 
the following reasons. First, since Arabic has an overt form of the copula that can occur 
in the present tense, it is hard to adopt the claim of a null or deleted copula. Second, 
null constituents, according to Minimalist Theory, can be defined as "constituents which 
have grammatical and semantic features but lack phonetic features" (Radford 2004:106). 
However, in Arabic nonverbal sentences, there is no feature remaining for the copula. The 
Case of the predicate is different between sentences with the past tense and sentences with 
the present tense, as we illustrated. If verbless sentences are also underlyingly verbless, then 
we can explain the difference by postulating that accusative on the predicate is assigned by 
V, while nominative on the predicate is assigned by agreement with the nominative subject. 
Assuming that verbless sentences do not have a null copula also explains why they are 
semantically different from predicative sentences with a copula. 

6. Conclusion 

The primary aim of this paper has been to provide a comprehensive analysis for the 
claim that Arabic verbless sentences contain a null or deleted copula. For a number of 
reasons illustrated in the course of the paper there, this assumption seems implausible, in 
particular, after we have learnt that Arabic has the present form derived from the root k.a.n 
of the copula verb by adding the prefix ya- to the imperfect verb form resulting in yakuun. 

Pragmalingulstica, 14, (2006), 101-116 


Nasser Al-Horais. - Arabic verhless sentences: is there a null VP? 

Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that there is no V and hence no VP in Arabic verbless 
sentences. Instead, this study has argued for the approach that Arabic has two alternatives 
(both are syntactically and semantically different) to express the present tense with such 
sentences: one is achieved without an inflected verb and the other with a verb (copula) 
inflected for tense. 


I am indebted to Professor Anders Holmberg for very insightful comments and 
suggestions on an earlier version of this paper. I am very grateful to Khaled Kakhia for 
reading an earlier draft and for Dr.Carmen Rios Garcia and Bobga Benoit for helping me 
in translating the abstract into Spanish and French. It goes without saying that I remain 
fully responsible for any remaining errors. 


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